Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jayne Elizabeth Lewis's "Air's Appearance"

Jayne Elizabeth Lewis is professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Air's Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660-1794, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Air’s Appearance happens to be about ... air’s appearance! How, that is, does air look to human observers? It’s a trick question of course: Air is invisible. So it can only ‘look’ any way at all by virtue of what we project into it. Indeed, we communicate these projections through the air, insofar as we communicate via speech and its ethereal proxies, text and screen.

Page 99 attempts to stabilize an obviously slippery situation by approaching it from a historical point of view: How were things that literally appeared in the air—meteors, comets, rainbows, the aurora borealis—seen in later seventeenth-century England? Here we’re not just in the midst of the so-called scientific revolution but also in the aftermath of the so-called Puritan revolution and political backlash against it. At a time of multiple (hence suspended) worldviews, not everyone saw aerial things as things, which is to say as purely physical events occurring, unconditioned, in the atmosphere. Instead, aerial phenomena from shooting stars to parhelia (double suns) to reddened clouds were also seen as portents, reprimands, and divine or demonic signatures.

So what did air register consistently across observers? The answer appears on Page 99: Air registers habits of human speculation themselves, their inevitable intermixture with the objects we speculate about. Further, things in the air reveal the representational aspect of any objective phenomenon that appears to the human eye. Page 99 cites several contemporary figures who understood the air in figural, even aesthetic, terms as a “theater of light.” What’s more, print’s emergence as the dominant medium in the second half of the seventeenth century meant that English readers were now as likely to see the things that appeared in the air through the screen of visible words—hence in the minds’ eye—as they were to see those things themselves. Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681) treats modern meteorological spectacles as “signs of another nature” insofar as they make their meaning apparent in the moment of their appearance to the eye. Because mediation still occurs at that moment, experience of them matches the experience of literary representation.

Air’s Appearance connects the emergence of “atmosphere” as an aesthetic program in early English fiction with contemporary conceptions of air as these were forged in natural philosophy, demonology, and social theory. Page 99 is in Chapter Four, which sets Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe amid rival meteorologies of its time, foregrounding the weather journal that Crusoe keeps on his desert island in relation to contemporary weather writing. I interpret the inset journal as a tutorial in how to read the atmospheres of fiction, even as it proves eerily indistinguishable from ‘real’ weather journals of the time and other contemporary representations of aerial events.
Learn more about Air's Appearance at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue